Asim Waqif

HELP, Jumna’s protest (2010-11), unauthorised site-specific installation on the river in Delhi. Materials: Recycled water bottles, ropes, LEDs and batteries. Photo: Raoul Amaar Abbas

TODAY, FEW ARTISTS rely on installation work as their primary means of expression, however, Asim Waqif (b. 1978 in India) is one of these rare artists. Besides working with installation, he also has a more ambitious agenda than solely to present visually pleasing pieces. Indeed, Asim Waqif has made it a point to address global issues, including urban planning, consumerism and sustainability though his work. Most importantly, he is determined to bring these pieces to the notice of people who would not necessarily visit galleries, or museums. His work, therefore, can often be found in unpredictable places, where his intervention will inevitably be the source of discussion and where it aims to raise awareness of certain issues. We spoke with Asim Waqif about his practice and his trajectory.

Asian Art Newspaper: Your work will be featured in the upcoming exhibition After Midnight: Indian Modernism to Contemporary India 1947/1997 at the Queens Museum of Art in New York, when it opens in March.
Asim Waqif: Yes. It is an exhibition of Indian artists with one half of the show focusing on modern art (with artists like MF Husain, Tyeb Metha, etc.) and the other half on contemporary art. I think I am only one of two people completing a site-specific piece at the museum. The rest of the works are going to be flown in. To some extent, my piece for the Queens Museum in New York bears some similarity with the installation I had at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris in 2012, in the sense that I want to use rubbish that has been generated in museums and in different art institutions in New York and make a work out of it. As always in regard to installations, my process remains open-ended, as I do not have a drawing that I am following. I hardly ever make drawings of installations that I am going to make, because I find that the drawing limits what can actually be made.

AAN: With Bordel Monstre, you presented a spectacular installation at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris in 2012. How did you tackle this space?
AW: I was very conscious of the fact thatI did not want to come to Paris with a preconceived idea, or a preconceived project. I wanted to take it slowly and work with whatI could find there. After my arrival,I explored many places in Paris. I wanted to investigate the abandoned spaces in the city, but I felt that as a foreigner, and as a non-French speaking person, it would be difficult for me to have access to these spaces. With the help of Palais de Tokyo and SAM Art Projects (a private initiative supporting contemporary art), I got in touch with some graffiti artists and we explored things together, which was extremely interesting. Then one time, I was being given a tour of Palais de Tokyo when they were showing me prospective spots for my work and, by accident, I went through the service yard of the museum. What I saw there was most intriguing: it just happened that the museum had a lot of rubbish that they wanted to get rid of. I suggested that they give methe rubbish and I would use it formy project.

AAN: Your background is in architecture. What prompted you to move from architecture into the contemporary art world?
AW: Frankly, I never really practised architecture. I studied architecture, but after gaining my degree, I did a lot of different things. I found that the curriculum was too theoretical: I was taught how to make elaborate drawings of various constructions, but I had not worked with the actual materials myself. Therefore, I did some apprenticeships, for example, working as a carpenter and trying to learn how to use the tools, basically in very old school workshops. However, I did set up an architectural office with some friends in Delhi, but I was consulting more on short term projects like exhibition design, set design for television, and for theatre and films, as well as advertising films. I felt that the architectural projects took too long from the conceptual stage to execution. In addition, it seemed to me that the process of design was only happening in the studio and not on the construction site, which was ultimately mainly following through on the drawings and related instructions. As I wanted to innovate whilst working with materials, I found the short-term projects for set design and exhibition design much more interesting, here many things could be fluid and I could keep changing things right up until the last minute, which is something I enjoy. With set design, I was starting to learn about lighting, cameras, etc. which led me to start making documentaries. Then I made some anthropological films, ecology based documents, but there came a time when I felt quite frustrated with the whole design practice and more specifically with the marketing of design, the selling, and the client meetings. Somehow, a number of clients would understand the aesthetics, but were not able to visualise a three-dimensional space from a two-dimensional drawing. As a result, it was becoming more and more difficult for me to communicate with them. At that point, I decided to approach Khoj in Delhi, a non-profit art organisation. They were very supportive and ready to move forward with me. This is how I created my first art project – around 2005. I very much enjoyed that process, because coming from a design and architectural background, there was no client. I was my own client, so I could push the design to whatever point I wanted. I then did a public-art project in Delhi in 2008, but it is not until 2010 that I started calling myself an artist. To some extent, it was a strategic move: I felt the art scene was not taking me seriously, because they thought I was an architect that worked on sets. They were unsure whether I was committed to making art or not. So one day, I just decided to introduce myself as an artist and that was that.

AAN: You work a lot in public spaces. Have you ever faced any difficulties in getting permission from official institutions?
AW: In India, I do not get any permission: I just go and do the project! If I wanted to get permission, it would be quite complicated. However, I have done a few projects with permission, like the 2008 project, which was on an archaeological site. For this specific project, I had to get permission from the relevant government department. I also did a project on a river that became quite an institutionalised project in the sense that the city of Delhi was one of the sponsors. So permission was involved for that. In India, the permission process is really torturous, but I think the process can be as difficult in Europe and in the US. In Europe, people advised me to forget about certain projects as I would not get permission. In India, I just do the project and the negotiations happen later at a human level. I think that in Europe and in the US, the systems are so strong and rigid that you cannot simply go out and just do something. If the police come and stop you in Paris, or somewhere in the US, asking whether you have permission and it turns out that you do not, then you would have to stop. In India, if the police come and stop you, you negotiate with them, and it finally works out. So I definitely find it easier to work in India.

AAN: Most of your installations are on a very large scale and tend to be ephemeral. In your opinion, what is the advantage of ephemeral projects over permanent ones?
AW: I do not share the view of the art market that is constantly talking about art as a commercial proposition and is concerned about perpetuating it, perpetuating the β€˜object’ itself. I think there is a lot of value in the memory of an object rather than the object itself, especially in public projects. With public sculpture in a city, after a certain time, because you look at it again and again and you encounter it on a daily basis, it sort of disappears into the landscape of the city. I think it is much more interesting to put something in a place and then remove it, because not only does the removal provide the space for something else to come up, but also the memory that it was there has a lot of potential and is powerful. Therefore, I am not really concerned about preserving my installations as such. It is more about the moment and the experience at that particular time.

AAN: Are you trying to document the pieces as thoroughly as possible, in order to help preserve the memory?
AW: No, not necessarily. I have made some documentary videos of some of my installations, but more often the videos are about peripheral things that are happening around the installation rather than the installation itself. The video then becomes a mechanism trying to address the different aspects that affected the project, and how the project affected the space.

AAN: You are addressing issues that concern us all (waste, urban planning, etc). Through your work, do you primarily want to point out the delicate situation we are in, or are you also trying to show some leads for the future?
AW: I think it has to be a combination of both. It is very easy to criticise without thinking about new possibilities. I try to avoid that as much as I can. Also, criticism – like activism, telling people this is not a good way to do things, can be counterproductive, because once you start directly criticising a lifestyle, a person or a community, that person automatically builds a defensive wall around themselves in order to protect their domain, or lifestyle. I try to use ambiguity and humour – not to tell people things – but to make them think about what they are encountering. It then becomes an introspective process. I believe that has more potential, because the person is questioning himself, questioning what he sees, or what he encounters. I try to avoid strongly direct messages. To some extent, my projects not only revolve around the criticism of what is happening, but also around the potential of what can be done.

AAN: Do you find that some of your projects have had a positive impact on your surroundings, or towards the cause you were supporting?
AW: I hope so. It is quite difficult to quantify especially because I am trying to use a lot of ambiguity as a mechanism in terms of communication. For example, a project I did in Badrinath (India), which was about water, was taken on and continued by the temple committee because they felt it was a good initiative. I think it definitely had a positive impact.

AAN: As you are addressing global issues, would you consider joining forces with a non-profit organisation if they asked for your help to raise awareness?
AW: I would definitely consider it, but I am a little cautious with regards to non-profit organisations as they have too strong an agenda and at times they are not very flexible. They are so convinced about what they are trying to do that they find it difficult to consider things from other perspectives. Of course, I am generalising quite a lot, and, of course, not all non-profits are like that. I am open to the idea, but it depends completely what the subject and the situation are before I jump into it.

AAN: Some of your installations rely on bamboo. Outside of India, have you been criticised by any ecological groups for using bamboo and destroying nature?
AW: Not really. In India, bamboo is considered poor material, so nobody cares about it. As for work overseas, I have only used bamboo a few times outside of India. Once at Daniel Templon in Paris I relied on bamboo, and before that I did a bamboo piece in Hong Kong. It made sense in Hong Kong because there is a lot of bamboo there. I have done a project in bamboo for the Hong Kong art fair and most people who came to see it thought because of the material that it was created by a local artist. During my residency at SAM Art Projects in France, there was a lot of pressure for me to make something out of bamboo because I had been doing a lot of work with bamboo. In Europe, however, I felt it was enough if I put just one single piece of bamboo in the middle of an empty room simply because in Europe it is an exotic material and it does not have the same connotation India has with bamboo, or Southeast Asia, in general. For me the material and the local relationship with the material wherever the project is located are important.

AAN: Many people keep a very traditional vision of what art should be, namely a painting hanging on the wall of a gallery. When working on a project and trying to secure a space, how do you go about convincing people that it could be an eye-opener on many levels?
AW: That again depends on where the project is located. I think in Europe, or the US, one can really do public projects and people will easily think it is art. In India, it is actually the complete opposite – in the sense that hardly anybody will think it is art. Consequently, I do not tell them it is art. For example, in the project for the Jumna River in Delhi, I installed a big floating signage on the river which simply said β€˜HELP’. We got stopped by the police, but we never told them it was an artwork. We told them it was a public awareness campaign, a social project. Then, there was another project that I did with Kohj at a Hindu pilgrimage site high up in the Himalayas. There, as well, we were talking about it as a public awareness campaign, not as an art project. I think trying to tell people about art – people who have never encountered art – and trying to instil in them that it is art is not necessarily the right way to go about it. Actually, what is more important is what the artist is talking about or what the project is suggesting. By not calling it art, but by calling it some other names, people will talk about the message or about the subject which is fine with me. One does not necessarily want to call it art.

AAN: Indirectly, many of your projects are dealing with the issue of sustainability.
AW: Indeed, a lot of my projects are talking about sustainability and I have even worked on non-profit sustainable projects. Presently, the high-tech understanding of sustainability is promoting things like local reusable resources as a new idea. However, if you look at any indigenous community, not only in India, but even in Europe (say in pre-industrial revolution), all the communities were following certain systems and they had a local sustainable use of resources. To a large extent, I think that advertising has polarised the new and the old, always trying to sell us new things as a solution to all our problems. Somehow, in our minds, new and old are two diametrically opposite things. In my opinion, I find that in terms of sustainability and also in areas like urban planning, if you are able to combine our traditional vernacular things that are developed indigenously with the high-tech modern technology, you will have a much more human technology rather than this sort of fast paced industrial thing, which does not seem to have any particular direction. In many of my works, I am really interested in merging, and in moving, the difference between the new and the old.

AAN: Why do you think there is a certain resistance, be this in India or abroad?
AW: I think it has to do with advertising. With advertising, you are constantly told that if you buy this new product, you buy the latest thing because the old one is no longer good. That creates a polarisation between what is modern and high-tech and what is old school or traditional. I found that in Europe there are a lot of people who are working in traditional crafts, but it is almost like a cult for very educated, aware people. That is why many people come to India and talk about spirituality, because there seems so little spirituality in industrialised countries. I am not at all saying that new technology is bad. New technology is very important, specifically because of the demands humans put on the earth as never before. It is a fact that there are just too many people in the world today. Consequently, we have to use new technologies. The problem with new technology is that often it is marketed before it is tested, and even if some testing is done, it is done only for a few years. So, 20 years later you find out about its drawbacks and to replace that some other technology is put in, and again you have to wait two decades to find out the bad things about that replacement. When you look at vernacular technology, because we are dealing with a long period of time, all the by-products or the secondary aspects of using the technology are already known to some extent. Consequently, it has a lot of value.

AAN: The installation process of your pieces seems to be quite physically demanding.
AW: Yes. Actually, I really enjoy physical exhaustion all the more so as most people work out of offices, or sit in front of a computer typing. For me, physical tasks are very important in my life, not really for work, but I like, for example, to do a lot of mountaineering and trekking. We are talking about extreme trekking where I am physically trying to push my body to its limits. Also, there is a very different association with an object that you have created with your own hands, as opposed to an object that is industrially manufactured, or assembled, by somebody else or under instructions. This strong relationship is important to me.

AAN: You recently completed a project that also involved performance. You suggested this may represent a new direction in your work. In what sense?
AW: I have done some informal performances. On one occasion, I had created this really elaborate bamboo structure in Milan, and on the day of the opening after about two hours when people had seen it, I completely destroyed it. I destroyed it first with knives and blades and then finally with a chainsaw to destroy it completely. It was a kind of performance act, but on other occasions I have tried to direct performances where it the event rather than myself that is the centre of the performance. I have done a big one on the Jumna River using different lights and installation. The one I performed in Bombay recently was very different because it was me reading a text and I was collaborating with a sound artist – or rather a noise artist I should say. The text was adapted from two books, one about insanity and the other was about the relationship between the reader and the writer. I used these writings to talk about the relationship between the artist and the viewer, as well as to talk about the relationship between creativity and insanity.

AAN: In the past you have taken part in a number of residencies. Is that something you would like to pursue?
AW: I have no planned residencies at the moment, but I am grateful that I could do them. Initially, staying in India and working with art institutions and art galleries in India, we have a certain impression of what Europe is like and how other people work. Then, having the opportunity to go and work there and encounter other people, you get a different understanding of what the art world is like – the people, the country, the institutions, etc. The residencies were very good exposure for me. During my first residency, I stayed in Milan for three months which was very interesting. I then did a residency in the US, which was completely different from the previous one as there were 65 other residents and it was a very intense. And finally, there was the SAM Art Projects residency. Back then, I was really keen on residencies for exposure, but now I am more interested in residencies if they have good resources and they can provide me – not only in terms of financing, but in terms of material, space or permissions – with the ability to complete a work.

AAN: In your opinion, what goals should be reached through art?
AW: I think that in the current context, we are in an anti-aesthetic art scene: beautiful things and looking at well-crafted objects are not important anymore. Perhaps it has to do with how good photography has become in terms of realism? I think the new rule of art, in the aesthetic sense, should be to challenge established systems whatever those systems are. The systems are meant to regulate society and community into a harmonious entity. However, after some time, the system becomes so strong that it starts oppressing the community and society. In that sense, the most important thing for art today is to challenge established systems.

AAN: Working in a less conventional way than most artists, what would you consider the main challenges in your practice?
AW: The biggest challenge is not to fall into a certain relationship with the art market situation and not be completely subject to it. Of course, I want to be part of it and there is no question about that as my living is coming from my art practice. I have to be aware not to do what the market asks me to do just for getting a substantial amount of money. I think that is the main challenge. I do not want to make my art practice into a production-based organisation. I like to make things and when I am evolving them something new emerges. If my practice becomes a repetitive, production-based process, then I do not want to do it anymore. I want to completely avoid that.

AAN: Very few of your projects have taken place in galleries. Why?
AW: Mostly, galleries are designed as white-cube spaces, because they want to be able to show any kind of art, and therefore they have to be a neutral space. The institution is trying to make sure any type of art can be shown no matter from where the artwork is coming. Usually, when working on a piece, the place where it is installed is very important for me. A lot of the time the form, or the seed of the idea, originates from the location of the project. In that sense, I always found that it was very difficult for me to work in a space specifically designed to be neutral. I am always trying to pick at new ideas on the site, but if the site is designed to be a neutral space then it becomes more complicated.
I cannot say I was reluctant to enter the art market, because I am making my living out of the works I am completing. In that sense, I have to earn money from somewhere. I think galleries are very important because in some way they function as agents. I never wanted to pick up the phone and ask a client where the money was, or worry about insurance, packaging, or shipping. In that sense and for all the services they are providing, I am happy to be working with them. I do not mind the institution of the gallery system so much, but it is the neutral space of the gallery that initially was difficult for me. However, I think I have got over this now.

Asim Waqif’s work is in After Midnight : Indian Modernism to Contemporary India 1947/1997 at the Queens Museum of Art, New York, 1 March to 28 June, and also in the 8th Asia Pacific Triennial in Brisbane, Australia from 21 November to 10 April 2016